Queen Victoria photographed for her diamond jubilee in 1897. Photograph: PA
No shrinking violet when it came to letting her wishes be known, Queen Victoria was never more oppressively assertive than in deploying her band of biddable grandchildren to raise Europe from discord into bliss, yoked together by royal alliances through which the liberal vision of the queen’s revered late husband, Prince Albert, would mature and flourish. Peace would be guaranteed throughout a continent that had been torn apart by Napoleon’s depredations. Britain, working hand in gilded glove with a unified Germany (led by Victoria’s eldest daughter and an enlightened imperial spouse), would naturally enjoy supreme control.
That was the idea, and it was partly due to Victoria’s manipulative energy that seven of her 42 grandchildren eventually became crowned rulers. Much of the pathos of Deborah Cadbury’s absorbing book stems from our knowledge of what happened next.
At home, Victoria naturally began by seeking a suitable wife for the Prince of Wales’s eldest boy. George, the obedient younger brother, was dispatched to sea while the English throne’s dissolute future heir was pressed upon the queen’s favourite granddaughter, the beautiful and motherless Alexandra of Hesse. Eddy (short for Albert Edward) was “good and affectionate”, the young man’s grandmother beseeched a reluctant Alexandra, while shooing a handsome Russian grand duke away from her equally lovely sister, Ella.
Both schemes failed. Ella, laden with jewels that annoyingly outdazzled those adorning England’s own incomparable monarch, married her Russian Sergei. Eddy, rejected by Alexandra, found himself conscripted into an alliance with the pleasingly anglicised (she grew up in Richmond) May of Teck. Dear May was so much better suited to the English throne than “eine kleine deutsche Prinzessin”, Victoria tactlessly crowed to her eldest daughter, Vicky, herself the widowed mother of three Prussian princesses.
Fate outwitted her latest matchmaking plot. In January 1892, six weeks before his wedding, Eddy unhelpfully died of diphtheria, leaving his fiancee stranded, if not altogether bereft. Briskly reslotted into a marriage with the next in line, the accommodating May became one of Victoria’s success stories. As Queen Mary, consort of George V, her notoriously acquisitive habits as a guest proved less important than the conscientious fulfilment of her royal role. King George, though he regretted being deprived of his own heart’s choice (“Missy”, the future Queen Marie of Romania, was snatched away by a Russian mother whose matchmaking skills vied with Victoria’s own), might have done a lot worse.
Anarchy was the brooding giant that overshadowed Queen Victoria’s manipulative scheming in her role as “universal grandmother”. Cadbury’s book opens with the shocking 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II. When Alexandra of Hesse, supported by her tricksy German cousin Willy, the future kaiser, agreed to convert faiths in order to marry Nicky Romanov (this was a real love match), Victoria felt terrified. Her fear increased when the sudden death of the groom’s powerful father (Alexander III) precipitated Nicky into a role for which everyone perceived the weak young man to be woefully unsuited. “May God help them,” wrote the ageing queen. It was as if, in 1894, Victoria had foreseen what was to come.
What followed was shock upon shock. Elizabeth of Austria was stabbed to death in 1898 (with a meticulously sharpened industrial needle). The Prince of Wales narrowly escaped being murdered in 1900, the year King Umberto of Italy was killed. In 1905, Elizabeth of Hesse’s Russian husband, Sergei, died when his royal carriage was blown to bits. In 1906, a bomb narrowly missed Ena, the youngest of Victoria’s granddaughters, bloodying her wedding dress during celebrations of her marriage to the king of Spain.
The fall of the Romanovs occupies the superb last pages of Cadbury’s book. Alexandra of Hesse had lost the support even of Ella long before she herself faced a firing squad in 1917, huddled with her children in a dank cellar. Shot at again and again, the Romanov women mysteriously eluded death. Later, as the corpses were hauled on to a truck, a sudden spew of diamonds revealed the secret of the Romanovs’ survival. Each dress was densely lined with jewels, concealed for their ill-fated flight.
Dynastic mergers, we may deduce from Deborah Cadbury’s account, offer no defence against the whims of history. This catastrophe-laced slice of royal history offers a ripping read.
• Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury is published by Bloomsbury (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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